A flurry of letters and orders went out from Maj. Gen. Andrew Jackson’s headquarters at Fort Gadsden on the lower Apalachicola River 200 years ago today. The U.S. Army would march on the Spanish city of Pensacola.
This article is part of a continuing series marking the 200th anniversary of the First Seminole War. Please click here to see the entire timeline of stories.
Jackson and his much reduced army reached Fort Gadsden on April 2, 1818, after a long, difficult and successful march of destruction against Miccosukee, San Marcos de Apalache (St. Marks) and the Suwannee Old Towns. Aware of supply shortages affecting the garrison of Fort Crawford at what is now East Brewton, Alabama, the general had demanded that Gov. Don Jose Masot at Pensacola allow free passage of the Escambia River by U.S. supply boats.
Jackson’s use of the term “free passage” in this case did not refer just to navigation, but duties and tariffs on U.S. military shipments. He informed Masot in his March 25 letter that the matter was non-negotiable:
…I am not disposed to enter into any controversy with you on the rights which our Government may claim to the free navigation of such water-courses as head within her limits, but flow through the territory of His Catholic Majesty, preferring to leave these subjects to be settled by those legally authorized; but as it is necessary for me to make use of the Escambia river in passing up provisions to the garrison at Fort Crawford, I wish it to be distinctly understood, that any attempt to interrupt the passage of the transports cannot be viewed in any other light than as a hostile act on your part. [I]
The governor’s response reached Fort Gadsden shortly after Jackson’s return and it made clear that while willing to give temporary relief in times of emergency, Spain was not willing to regularly suspend its laws for the benefit of the United States:
In accordance with the declaration of your excellency, when you add that it is not your intention to enter into a discussion with me in relation to to the right which the United States may claim to the free navigation of the Escambia, so neither is it mine to discuss this subject with your excellency, as well because it dows not fall within my duties, as that, being a subordinate officer, I am bound to obey the superior on whom I depend, it being my duty, until I receive instructions to the contrary, to be governed on this head by the treaties existing between the United States and Spain. [II]
Masot did explain that he had earlier allowed 60 barrels of provisions to Fort Crawford for humanitarian reasons. Should further exceptions to Spanish law be requested, he asked that Jackson direct them to higher authority.
The governor’s reply did not go over well with Jackson. His irritation grew to anger when he learned that William Hambly had received letters from Pensacola reporting that 500 Red Stick fighters were there:
…It has been stated that the Indians at war with the U. States have free access into Pensacola; That they are kept advised from that quarter of all our movements; that they are supplied from thence with amunition & munitions of war, & that they are now collecting in large bodies to the amount of 4 or 500 warriors in that city; That inroads from thence have lately been made on the Alabama, in one of which 18 setlers fell by the tomahawk. [III]
Jackson was not aware of Maj. White Youngs’ recent attack on Red Stick camps at Pensacola during the Battle of Bayou Texar near Pensacola. The defeated Muscogee (Creek) had sued for peace and were even then making their way back to the Creek Nation in Alabama. Youngs had found no evidence that their numbers were more than a couple of hundred men, women and children, nowhere near the 400-500 claimed in some of the accounts that made their way to Jackson through Hambly.
Angry and determined to punish both Gov. Masot and any Red Sticks who might be at Pensacola, Old Hickory decided to cross the Apalachicola River and march on Spain’s West Florida capital:
These statements compell me to make a movement to the West of the Apalachacola and should they prove correct Pensacola must be occupied with an American force – The Governor treated according to his deserts or as policy may dictate. I shall leave strong garrisons in Fort St. Marks, Fort Gadsden, and Fort Scott, and in Pensacola should it become necessary to possess it. It becomes my duty to state it as my confirmed opinion, that so long as Spain has not the power, or will to enforce the treaties by whichshe is solemnly bound to preserve the Indians within her territory at peace with the U. States, no security can be given to our Southern frontier without occupying a cordon of Posts along the Sea Shore. [IV]
To avoid the lower courses of the rivers and creeks that flow into the Gulf of Mexico in West Florida, Jackson decided to direct his line of march more to the north and more or less parallel to the southern border of Alabama. His guide Chief John Blunt, his topographer Capt. Hugh Young and his engineer/aide-de-camp Maj. James Gadsden undoubtedly contributed to his decision to march back up the east side of the Apalachicola River and cross the army at Ocheesee Bluff.
Orders went out for the garrison at Fort Scott to send down as many boats as possible to aid the soldiers in getting over the river. The 4th U.S. Infantry, then waiting at that post for a chance to enter the conflict, was also called into action:
You will order the efffectives of the 4th Regt. of Infantry, now at Fort Scott, to meet the army at the Ochisee village on the 9th inst., whither you will send at the same time all the corn you may have on hand reserving for the use of your post few bushels.
You will place the sick of the 4th Inf. under the charge of Lt. Wager, who will be directed to report to, & act under the orders of Colonel King.
By order of Maj. Genl. Gaines [V]
The Ocheesee Bluff is a long, low formation on the west side of the Apalachicola River opposite Rock Bluff and today’s Torreya State Park. It was the scene of the Battle of Ocheesee Bluff five months earlier. Jack Mealy, the principal chief of the Ocheesee Talofa, was fighting against the United States but had taken to the swamps with most of his followers.
Officers ordered the soldiers encamped around Fort Gadsden to prepare cooked rations for a march that would begin in less than 48-hours.
This series will continue. To learn more about old Fort Gadsden, where Jackson made his West Florida campaign decision 200 years ago today, please enjoy this free mini-documentary from Two Egg TV:
If you have not seen Two Egg TV‘s documentary on Fort Mims, the bloody Creek War battle that continued to have repercussions across the Southern frontier at the time of Jackson’s march, please check it out! You can watch for free on Amazon Prime Video at Battle for Fort Mims or on the free Two Egg TV channel on your Roku device or tv.
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[I] Maj. Gen. Andrew Jackson to Gov. Jose Masot, March 25, 1818, American State Papers, Military Affairs, Volume I: 704.
[II] Gov. Jose Masot to Maj. Gen. Andrew Jackson, April 16, 1818, American State Papers, Military Affairs, Volume I: 706.
[III] Maj. Gen. Andrew Jackson to Secretary of War John C. Calhoun, May 5, 1818, Secretary of War, Letters Received, National Archives.
[V] Maj. Gen. Edmund P. Gaines to Maj. Enos Cutler, May 5, 1818, Adjutant General, Letters Received, National Archives.